Sardinia: Notes From a Big Wild Island

Sardinia, Italy sunset. Ann Averill photos.
Sardinia, Italy sunset. Ann Averill photos.

Sardinia:  For 350 Years, This Parade Has Been the Highlight of Cagliari

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

The honorary mayor is in charge for just one day during the Festival di Sant'Efisio in Cagliari.
The honorary mayor is in charge for just one day during the Festival di Sant’Efisio in Cagliari.

Last night we had a late dinner and while we sat at long tables, we learned a bit more about the festival and parade of Sant’Efisio that we had seen in Cagliari earlier in the day. For 350 years this has been a very important event that takes place the first day of May.

Riccardo Strano, head of Italian Tourism North America, became quite animated when he spoke about how unique this festival was, throughout the Mediterranean, and talked about the legends that drive the whole affair. It meant a lot to him that Americans wanted to know about the parade’s origins and traditions.

“The procession, the horses, they all go out to Nora,” he said. Nora is about four kilometers out of the city proper and is a site of ancient ruins by the sea. “They ride out there and then, on the way back home, the horses gallop as fast as they can. It’s a spectacular sight!”

This parade features elaborate costumes and gold jewelry that is all owned by the families, kept in special places, and authentic right down to their shoes. Each village wears its own unique style, a conical hat, or a swept-back beret.

Of the more than 350 villages in Sardinia, just 150 are selected each year to be a part of the parade and have their oxcarts and horses march before the thousands of cheering local citizens.

One man is made the honorary mayor, (pictured) and gets to have his powers for just the day of the parade. He wears the ceremonial sash and is an important fixture in the parade.

The statue of Saint Efisio
The statue of Saint Efisio

But the most important part of the parade is the wooden box that holds a figure of Saint Efisio, into which the archbishop places flowers in front of the dignitaries in the stands.

This is where the crush of film and video cameras created a vortex of paparazzi energy, everyone thrashing to get their lens into that perfect shot.

All over the street rose petals blanketed the pavement, as the important carriage and the horses and the costumed locals made their way past.

Roman’s Yacht at Costa Smerelda

Ugh…you know that sinking feeling when you wake up later than you meant to? We are staying in a four-star hotel on the fancy schmancy Costa Smeralda… where Roman Abramovich’s yacht (one of them anyway, a mere 300 feet) bobs in the harbor.

Yet we don’t get a wake-up call and now Cindy is rushing to get all of her morning preparations done and still squeeze in some breakfast.

The littlest marcher
The littlest marcher in traditional costume.

More than 150 villages from around Sardinia are given the chance to don these elaborate duds and march in this 350-year-old parade.

Oh, the tyranny of a multi-stop press trip with early wake-ups and dinners that go on until 1 am.

But in true GoNOMAD fashion, we aren’t complaining, No way! At least I’ve got a little time here in the sunny courtyard to blog, my favorite hobby.

This is the Emerald Coast, a place where people like Vladimir Putin have giant mansions, and the new President of Italy Berlusconi owns seven villas.

It’s spectacular the way that Amalfi is, with the same dramatic cliffs and winding roads. Yet the rocks are more barren, more moon-like. The views of the water include these very large yachts, giant vessels that must be owned by sultans and sheiks, not just rich dudes.

Today we travel inland, toward the other coast to Alghero, where we will jump into jeeps to see some of the territory a little closer up.

An island of this size (just about as big as Sicily) with just 1.6 million people spread over vast areas leaves a lot of room for sweeping views and giant spaces with no civilization.

The Hotel Arathena
The Hotel Arathena

It’s magnificent in its breadth and scope, to someone like me who is used to crowded New England…where there are few things I’d call sweeping or panoramic.

Here’s a Place to Stay That Won’t Break the Bank

This is the Hotel Arathena, a jewel in the Costa Smeralda town of San Pantaleo. While many of the fancy hotels that line the beaches go for 500 to 700 euros per night, this gorgeous place is just 70-140 euros per night including breakfast and dinner.

It’s light and airy, and the restaurant called Trattoria Balbacana served up some of the best food we had the whole trip. The beach is just ten minutes down a winding road, and there’s a cute pool up on top of this staircase.

A Shepherd Turns a Spit in Supramonte For Us

The next day we got a chance to see the breadth of this huge island, the sweeping interior that is barely covered with civilization even though man has walked these hills and valleys for more than 6,000 years.

A shepherd turns piglets on a spit in Sardinia.
A shepherd turns piglets on a spit in Sardinia.

Actually, it was probably longer, since that only takes into account as far back as the Phoenicians, and somebody was likely to already be living here when they arrived.

The drive from the east coast to the tip of the far northwest was across a giant-sized valley. The sweep of the green fields, cut up broadly by stone fences and punctuated by a surprising number of small extinct volcanoes, was breathtaking in how far you could see.

Many of the little farm buildings we saw were abandoned, and some of the hills had small conical buildings that were dwellings even before the Romans lived here.

Today’s highlight was meeting a shepherd who lives on a mountain in the Supramonte mountain range. We boarded four jeeps and drove up a rugged trail to the top, where this man has lived for decades, with no wife, just 70 sheep.

These Jeep tours are organized by a Sardinian operator called Barbagia Insolita.

A long wooden table was prepared for our large group, and strong local wine was served in pitchers, in front of our wooden plates.

Sheep’s milk ricotta with rosemary honey was the first treat, made that morning, and served on the wafer-thin bread found all over Sardinia. Then the salamis and the prosciutto, and then fresh sliced tomatoes… but inside a little conical hut, the shepherd was busy.

He was turning a little spit and roasting two suckling pigs just for us. Deliciously creamy with crispy fat and tender lean meat, the pork treat came out right after the sliced fennel, and more of that tempting ricotta from a large deep pan.

The setting was under bamboo reeds, and the views of the valley and the dramatic rocks above us were spectacular. A gorgeous sunny day, the buzz from that strong wine, and time to relax with a digestivo… Ahh, this was the pleasure that we knew we would eventually find on this big wild island of Sardinia.

This hotel is gorgeous with a front-row view of the inlet from the Mediterranean.

We got here at about 9:30 pm and will leave before the sun comes up… but no worries, as we are still thinking about that great mountain lunch with the lonely shepherd.

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One thought on “Sardinia: Notes From a Big Wild Island

  1. The history of Sardinia only goes as far back as the Phoenicians. And there were probably people on the island before? Really? Sardinia was a civilization some 10 centuries before the Phoenicians or Rome. And by the way the Romans never conquered the inland of Sardinia. Barbagia is notoriously one of the few places that Rome could not conquer.

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